When the unthinkable happened and the world went into lockdown back in March, most brands were already well underway with making Christmas adverts. Normal seasonal fare became cliché almost overnight, and a new audience emerged – one dealing with separation, anxiety and financial hardship.

Judging the mood wasn’t the only problem: adverts simply couldn’t be made in the same way. First, going out to film was impossible. Then it was possible…but tricky. In many ways it’s to the enormous credit of creative types up and down the country that any Christmas ads have ended up on air at all.

So how have brands rounded the obstacles and judged the mood? Well, while the spectre of COVID has loomed overhead, brands haven’t let it dampen creative ambition.

The burning question: to spend or not to spend?

For many brands this was the Christmas to break the mould and do something different. Spending big on a flashy TV campaign didn’t ‘feel’ right – it was time to think about being a force for good. Philanthropy has played a large role in a number of ads.

John Lewis’ offerings have become fixtures in the Christmas calendar but on first viewing this year’s left us feeling slightly underwhelmed. The story behind the ad however – and the idea enclosed within it - is far more interesting.

The retailer very nearly chose not to make an ad at all. In the end ‘Give a Little Love’ encourages the nation to spread a little kindness and aims to raise £5million for charity. Graduates from Kingston University’s Illustration Animation degree were given the opportunity to work on a complementary 30-second animated ad (a huge gift in itself given the limited opportunities for grads in the industry). Everyone involved was perhaps a little unlucky that the ad’s launch was overshadowed by breaking news of new COVID vaccines. This unexpected ‘noise’ very much sums up an unusual year in communication strategy.

Papa John’s took a similar approach by asking its staff to get involved in a homemade effort – a stripped back festive ad drawn and snapped by its employees. It donated the money saved directly to its charity partners Crisis and The Trussell Trust. What’s lacking in craft is definitely made up for in the concept.

Boots’ festive offering takes on the spirit of kindness and comes alongside £1million worth of hygiene essentials being donated to The Hygiene Bank in a bid to help people living in hygiene poverty. We think the ad – which depicts personified soap, bubbles, toothpaste and other consumer goods singing Dionne Warwick’s ‘What the World Needs Now is Love’ – is middle of the road and makes us smile, but the point it makes is more important. Boots are doing what 'good citizen' brands should do - using their platform and voice to address a societal problem relevant to them, and not just to flog shower gel. The most genuinely charitable ad of the bunch - well done Boots.

Finally: M&S Food, whose ad stands out from the crowd by sticking to tried and tested creative with no apparent nod to the national sentiment. Yes, it does mention making donations to charities chosen by impossibly high-profile celebrity voiceover artists, but we have a nagging feeling this won’t score points for authenticity among consumers looking for something different.

The second big question: does COVID-19 get its name on the Christmas card? 

There were heated debates this summer in agency-land. Should Christmas 2020 adverts mention the ‘C’ word and address the pandemic directly? Or should avoid it, try to raise spirits and strike a tone of reassurance?

Many decided that a global health catastrophe couldn’t be brushed under the carpet. Of these there are two big winners. Amazon’s ad tugs on the heart strings and plays on a sense of coming together to triumph over challenges this year has thrown at us. It is beautifully shot, has a lovely narrative and wins in the tear-jerker category. Hats off to the makers for including someone in a face mask in their story – they’ve remembered that watching adverts that don’t reflect current reality can be jarring and negatively affect the way we engage with a brand.

Tesco is our other pick. Embracing the year’s grim realities and tapping into our collective sense of humour (who didn’t have a dodgy lockdown haircut?), it offers a light-hearted suggestion that we all deserve a treat this Christmas. It’s refreshing and achieves what it sets out to do. It has been widely applauded in the media for hitting the nail on the head with a “no preachy message, just a bit of jolly fun”.

Some brands chose not to dwell on the year of COVID-19, however (either through choice or perhaps because they’d already committed to a creative route). Many told straightforward, fun Christmas tales - honorary mentions go to Aldi bringing back Kevin the Carrot and Lidl taking on Kevin and giving us a light-hearted Christmas we can all believe in.

Elsewhere, many campaigns led with one standout theme: nostalgia for bygone days. Disney focuses on the bond between a grandmother and her granddaughter. Barbour tugs on the heart strings by telling the true story of a young boy who wants to fix his father's dog-chewed heirloom jacket. The latter has a strong sustainability strand to its messaging – something we’re surprised more brands didn’t look at this year. Argos inspired nostalgia for its recently abolished paper catalogue – the so-called ‘The book of dreams’. Finally, McDonalds tugged at the heartstrings of any parents hoping that Christmas brings out the inner child in their sulky adolescents who think they’re ‘too big’ for Christmas. A wonderfully touching, simple and brand relevant insight, craftily executed through animation.    

Finally, a mention for Sainsburys who inadvertently courted controversy when their ad showcased Christmases past to link families together through food. We’re hopeful that the subsequent historic response of solidarity from the usually highly competitive supermarket chains on both Channel 4 and social media is a sign that 2020 has made new ground in addressing diversity and equality.

This year’s challenges could have easily dampened the creativity on our screens at Christmas, but they seem to have done the opposite. Perhaps brands have been forced to take a stand for something or hop off the fence and commit to standout creative route. That’s a good thought to take into next year: struggle can – and usually does - fuel creativity.

Oh, and before we forget: we couldn’t possibly finish this review without a nod to this ‘Isle of Dogs’ inspired creation by lesser-known dog food brand GreeniesYou’re welcome.

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